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#351 – Participatory Grantmaking: 3 Years In – What Have We Learned

September 11th, 2019

Richard Marker

It was 3 years ago when a group of funders and advocacy groups announced the Participatory Grantmaking Initiative. It was founded on a key underlying philanthro-ethical principle – now cleverly articulated in the pithy statement: “Nothing about us without us.”

The initiative reminded funders that our power can distort our perceptions of what real needs are and our judgment about allocation of our funds. Underneath our careful diligence we are susceptible to the very same predispositions and biases as anyone else. If those most directly impacted, or at least those responsible for implementing our initiatives, are not involved in the decisions, how can we be sure that we are acting responsibly or equitably?

As our field has finally recognized, our race and ethnicity [and to a slightly lesser extent, our gender] does not always reflect those we are serving or funding. [By coincidence, this was written but not published before a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article underscoring this point.] And, unless we are funding elite schools and museums, it is certainly true that our economic status is far removed from the at-risk or at-need populations we aim to serve. It is surely a no-brainer that there are perspectives that need to be in the room and a long overdue corrective to the all too pervasive top down process.

But whose room, what roles, which decisions are far from clear. Should or must decision making extend to the board room? Do potential grantees have a disqualifying conflict of interest if they are also decision makers? [Recusal is an obvious technical answer, but we know that if one is a decision maker, even if one doesn’t vote, her/his presence is there.] And, bottom line, empowerment aside, how do we know that who is in the room actually guarantees greater impact? Therein lies the challenge.

These are difficult questions to ask these days for several reasons:

1. At a time when all questions, yes even in our field, are viewed as political, even asking this question runs the risk of implying that I am opposed to “participatory grantmaking.” So, let me set my record straight: I have been on boards which used variations of this form of grantmaking for a long time – long before the phrase became popular. Unquestionably we did better grantmaking because of having on the ground experts in the room. No question. Moreover, as a philanthro-ethicist, I suspect that several thousand funders who have taken courses or workshops with me can attest that I have been a long-time advocate that there need to be many means of countering the power imbalances intrinsic to our field – sharing decision-making is only one.

2. A more practical challenge is determining which stakeholders should be invited into the room. We have learned from program evaluators that determining which stakeholders need to be heard is often the most challenging part of any evaluation process. If that is hard for professional evaluators, consider the challenge to foundations and other funders who want to do the right thing and include the best informants but have limited resources and time to do that research. How do they avoid the challenges that they may have cherry picked their favorites or overlooked an important group?

3. A more far reaching question is what impact matters. Often in the most intractable systemic issues, funders can have perspectives that local service deliverers cannot have. That doesn’t mean that the service deliverers are wrong – but many of them have demanding claims on their time and resources that don’t allow or justify long term thinking. How one balances those two competing claims is not easy, and the impact measures themselves may compete. At the very least, it should force us to determine which interventions are most in line with our competencies and goals, and at the same time encourage us to help think through how the other needs can best be met.

For example, there is no systemic or societal issue that can be solved by a single intervention or funding approach. There are urgent needs for immediate responses to those who are ill or homeless or hungry or displaced. At the same time, all of those require a responsive public policy that helps ameliorate the underlying issues that a short-term intervention cannot. Funders with a commitment to address systemic issues know that advocacy and inter-sector collaborations are indispensable. It is perfectly reasonable to choose which approach is best for any individual funder, but we are not exempt for doing so with an alignment with those who are addressing the needs we cannot.

Impact measures – and which stakeholders should participate in these decisions – depend very much on where one fits on the continuum.

4. Underneath all of this is the question of the larger role of independent voluntary philanthropy in an open society. If, as many argue with a good deal of historic legitimacy, it is to fill in the gaping gaps that government chooses not to fund, then there is no question that there should be a mandate to engage as many stakeholders as possible in decision making. But if, as many others have argued, private philanthropy is society’s risk capital, not subject to plebiscite or opinion polls, then one might argue that it needs to be as free as possible to take those risks and stakeholders should be informants but not have a veto on funding choices. Of course, those decisions should be done in responsible, ethical, informed, and humble ways, but to take those risks is precisely the unique role that no other institution can play.

To return to the key point: our field, created out of privilege, has a lot to answer for. Whether intentionally or not, we have a long history of not treating our potential grantees as we should and knowing how to understand real needs and equity in making our decisions. Participatory Grantmaking is surely one of the correctives we should make to is to bring stakeholders into the funding process. As we see, even with the best of intentions, that approach is often easier articulated than implemented.

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